Monday 30 December 2013

The year in review: 2013 word cloud

Thursday 26 December 2013

Doodlings towards dotage

by Kim Fabricius

Richard Dawkins has said, “I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition.” Imagine Nietzsche, Freud, Camus saying such a dumb thing! No wonder Dawkins is such a second-rate atheist: he has no imagination. As C. S. Lewis observed, a person “who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”

Speaking of Lewis: he describes his conversion to Christ as coming via theism. My own experience was quite different: for me, Christ did not fulfil theism, he shattered it. If God were not Trinity, to hell with it: I’d be an atheist.

Staying with Lewis: theodicy – surely CS’ theological nadir. In The Problem of Pain, suffering as “God’s megaphone” – what is this but the instrumentalism of the “the outward bound school of theology” (D. Z. Phillips), cringingly inadequate in the face of horrendous evil. It might sell on The Oprah Show, but me (cf. Ivan K.), I want my studio ticket back. As for A Grief Observed, it’s a poignant reflection, but surely more “Well, er, yes” than “Ah-hah!” So POP has appeal for a can-do culture, and AGO has appeal for a death-denying culture – which, I think, adds to the explanation of why Lewis is so popular among Christians in the US.

… Finally, the devil took Jesus to Lisbon and Auschwitz, to Haiti and the World Trade Center, to Tōhoku and Sandy Hook, and said, “See all this devastation and death, bodies crushed and bloated, burned and blown away, thousands, millions, children. Why? You are the Son of God. Go on, give us a theodicy.” Jesus said to him – nothing whatsoever. He remained silent. Then the devil left him, and became a frequent visitor to philosophy and theology departments.

Almost everything that is wrong with American Christianity can be traced, metaphorically, to disobedience to the primal command of Genesis 12:1: “Leave your country.”

That purge in North Korea – some evangelical Christians struggling to remain in the Party will know that hunted feeling, that fear of inquisition from the panjandrums, and thus the need for constant self-surveillance, attention to the script, and carefulness in public speech.

Mark Twain famously quipped that he could remember anything – whether it happened or not. Rather like the authors of the biblical narrative – as pudd’nhead biblical literalists would do well to recognise.

So God gave Moses two tablets (Exodus 31:18). Kindle Fire, no doubt (Exodus 3:1ff.). Which the technologically challenged Moses proceeded to break. For his second set (Exodus 34:1), he went for Nook (Exodus 33:22). And Paul? He used an iPad (Romans 2:15a) – by Apple, of course (Romans 5:12ff.).

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”? No, love means never having to hear you’re sorry.

The New Monasticism shares three main marks with the traditional variety: (1) mutual accountability and the sharing of resources; (2) hospitality to the stranger; and (3) beer.

“Is the pope Catholic?” In some traditionalist Roman circles, and among ignorant right-wing pundits, this archetypal “yah-think?” is no longer a comical question. What next for this most personable, unconventional, and perhaps quite radical (i.e., faithful) pontiff? “Call me Frank”?

There are few moral absolutes, but torture is one of them. Hence my antipathy to “worship music”: liturgically, it’s abysmal; ethically, it’s excruciating. That’s why Sunday November 17th 2013 is a date that (for me) will live in infamy: led by a screeeeching soloist, we “exalted” the Lord eighteen times in one chorus. 18 times! In 1 chorus! Before we were in double figures I was thinking FFS! This wasn’t praise, it was hazing, and the worship leader should be prosecuted for a crime against humanity.

How would I describe George Herbert’s relationship with God? Complex, to be sure, but fundamentally (I think), the Lord was George’s best, sweet friend, one with whom he could play.

Jesus was sinless, okay, but that means he was perfectly obedient, not that he made no mistakes, let alone that he was successful. After all, he ended with a microchurch of two (and only one convert). And you and me – if there is any good in us, any growth in us, we owe it all to our failures.

Again: Did Jesus know about the boson before Higgs? Could he have run a marathon in under two hours, leaving Phidippides in the dust? Or delivered the Sermon on the Mount in German or Swahili? More somatically still, after a hard day’s healing, did our Lord stink? If your answers to the first three questions are Yes, and to the last question No, you get a Christology Fail (for Docetism).

I reckon that if Jesus had lived to be an uncle, he would have said that God is Saba, and that we must become like grandchildren to enter the kingdom of God.

People who say they wish they were young again were probably never young at all.

“I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you” (Revelation 3:20, The Message): that’s the Deliverance Man from Dominus Pizza.

The apotheosis of Nelson Mandela will only be complete when he has a flavour of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream named after him: perhaps a vanilla-chocolate blend called “Half-and-Half Nelson”?

So Martin Bashir has resigned from MSNBC over comments he made about Sarah Palin. He called her an “idiot”, America’s “resident dunce”, which is to state the bleeding obvious. He also opined that someone should defecate in Mrs. Palin’s mouth, which suggests the phrase “carrying coals to Newcastle”. Yes, for such journalistic solecisms, Bashir did the right thing and fell on his pen.

In dubio pro reo, for Phil Robertson, the pogonophilic patriarch of Duck Dynasty, let us be gracious and shave him with Hanson’s Razor.

Tony (“Yo”) Blair – Catholic convert, peace envoy, peripatetic bloviator – called it “irreversible and irresistible”. Grace? No, free-market-driven globalisation, the Abominable Impoverisher. Thus does Blair “do” God – for a fee and a fête.

Your birth day may not determine your future, but your birth address – now that’s an entirely different matter.

The largest welfare state in the world is the US. It’s just that the welfare is corporate, not social: it’s the rich, not the poor, who get the benefits (e.g., of deregulation and tax-breaks) – and who commit massive, not two-bit fraud. (Cf. the rejoinder to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: Whose Wealth? Which Nations?)

“There is never enough for those who have nothing, but there is always enough for those who have everything” (Manfred Max-Neef). Maranatha! Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

A Christmas carol

Merry Christmas, and thanks for reading my ramblings at F&T this year! Here's a Christmas carol I wrote during this morning's sermon:

Though our lives have fallen down
And though our hearts are sad,
A child is born in Bethlehem
And he will make us glad.

Though the angry nations rage
In wars that never cease,
A little child in Bethlehem
Is called the prince of peace.

Though we're born to slavery
And though injustice reigns,
A baby born in Bethlehem
Will take away our chains.

Though we poison all the seas
And though the earth is scarred,
A little boy in Bethlehem
Will mend what we have marred.

Though we'd lost a paradise
Which nothing could restore,
Our God is born in Bethlehem
And him our hearts adore.

Monday 23 December 2013

The heart is bigger than the nose: Cyrano de Bergerac

The hero of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the great comic characters of the theatre. Cyrano is a brilliant poet, romantic, swordsman, and soldier, yet on account of his inordinately big nose he believes himself unworthy of love. Though he has loved the beautiful Roxane ever since the two of them played together as children, he cannot believe that he could ever win her. Because he despises his own face, he believes himself to be despicable. And where he lacks evidence of his despicableness, he supplies the evidence by creating enemies wherever he goes. And so it is that our beleaguered hero ends up helping Christian – a good-looking and goodhearted fellow, though rather brainless and romantically challenged – to woo Roxane.

The new Sport for Jove production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which opened last week at the Bella Vista Farm in Sydney, is a triumph of comedic entertainment. Damien Ryan is a director who knows how to use his actors. In his production, nothing is wasted. There is no milling about. Every character to appear onstage is vivid and fully present. The preposterous stage-performers in the first act, the orange girl, the vexatious wife of Ragueneau, the bloke who heckles Cyrano from the audience, the starving soldiers, the giggling nuns, the gaggle of poets. All of them, even the most minor roles, are wonderfully, exhilaratingly alive – and that is to say nothing of the larger roles like the appropriately hateful De Guiche, the affable Le Bret, the spellbinding Roxane, the hilariously inarticulate Christian. The pastry chef Ragueneau is so good that in a lesser production he might have stolen the show. But this is Cyrano’s show, and nobody steals the show from Cyrano de Bergerac.

It takes an uncommon actor to cover the full range of Cyrano’s character, but Yalin Ozucelik does it with all the deceptive ease of a trapeze artist or a juggler of knives. He is every inch a Cyrano. Passionate, intellectual, violent, magnanimous, sentimental, dashing, dejected – and, in all this, charismatic and utterly lovable. By the end of the last act he has made his mark on every other character to appear on the stage. He has commanded every corner of the stage. He has commanded the heart of every last picnicking playgoer too. On the opening night he even commanded the moon, which came out from behind the clouds exactly on cue, just as Cyrano pointed and cried, “Look, the moon!” And the audience was so spellbound by the world Damien Ryan had concocted that we took this bit of miraculous staging in our stride. Though we marvelled afterwards at this lunar coincidence, at the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world for the clouds and the moon to respond to their cue. I suppose if the moon itself had answered in rhyming couplets, it would still have been Cyrano who held our attention.

Damien Ryan knows how to use his actors, and he knows how to use the stage too. Not a bit of the big outdoor space at the Bella Vista Farm was wasted: the grand spectacle of Ragueneau’s bakery, the gripping swordplay, the balcony scene (a funny and touching parody of Romeo and Juliet). Indeed one stage was not big enough for Ryan’s vision, and in the fourth act the audience was marched off to an adjacent shed where we sat on rough-hewn wooden pews and witnessed the starving soldiers under siege.

Even the final (and, let's face it, ridiculously melodramatic) act was handled with perfect tact, so that this last spectacle seemed like merely another natural expression of Cyrano’s inexhaustible personality. If it is the power of great comedy to make us laugh and cry at the same time and for the same reason, then this was great comedy.

And it is the power of great theatre to open our hearts and to make us see differently and feel differently. On the way home my wife said, “By the end of it, I even loved his nose.” That monstrous appendage, so shocking and repulsive when it first wagged its way on to the stage, was, in the course of three hours, imperceptibly transfigured into something beautiful and good and true.

Just as the beauty of Cyrano is hidden from himself and from the woman he loves, so at first it is hidden from the audience, concealed as it is behind the man’s impetuous violence, his French bad manners, and his immensely ugly nose. But by the last act we have learned to see Cyrano correctly. We love him all the more for his magnificent deformity, and we would not trade that nose for any well-sculpted face under the moon. For the secret of Cyrano is that comedy is bigger than tragedy, and the heart is bigger than the nose.

Friday 20 December 2013

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! (a hymn by Kim)

by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Sussex / Laus Deo)

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!
God’s in heaven, all is well!
No, he’s not, and all’s not well here:
“God’s on earth, but earth is hell.”

Jolly families in December,
round the telly, watching Morse
that’s the image, but remember:
child abuse and bleak divorce.

Roof extension, central heating,
double glazing, sofa bed;
while the homeless, in the sleeting,
search for doorway, box, or shed.

British blood and UK passport,
porridge, Guinness, cawl, and tea –
this is our land, for our own sort:
no room for the refugee.

Bonus for the city slicker,
cuts in care for sick and old,
politicians strut and snicker:
same old story, newly told.

Tyrants – they will not enslave us;
terror – we will not condone;
but our formless fears deprave us:
now we hunt and kill with drones.

Jesus, we have come to greet you,
star-crossed child of midnight birth;
now we go to tell or tweet you:
“Earth is hell, but God’s on earth!”

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Two new publications

I feel very proud to have a chapter in Beverly Gaventa's excellent new edited volume, Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8. My chapter is on "A Tale of Two Gardens: Augustine's Narrative Interpretation of Romans 5." Even though I don't really identify anymore with the "apocalyptic" strand of contemporary theology, it was a great pleasure to be involved in this project on the theology of St Paul, and to explore one aspect of the world-shaping influence of Paul's thought.

My new book, Salvation in My Pocket: Fragments of Faith and Theology, has been released too. My daughter has been reading it and she says she really likes it – so there's an early unbiased review for you. Regular readers of this blog will recognise most of the material, though I also added about a dozen new pieces and some other humorous and heart-warming material. Plus, reader, you will find everything very artfully arranged, with each piece interacting – or at least exchanging friendly glances – with its neighbours. The book should be properly stocked soon at Amazon, and it's available now from Book Depository or direct from the publisher.

Speaking of books and such, I recently came across the most sensational two-sentence review of Christ the Stranger over at Goodreads – it's the second review on the page, written by an intelligent, charming, and obviously quite exceptional person named Jenna Smith. Thank you, Jenna, whoever you are! Out of all the reviews I've seen, this was my favourite.

Monday 16 December 2013

A note on writing: inspiration and asceticism

An odd thing about writing. Normally I begin to write after some particular idea has occurred to me in a moment of inspiration – let us call this idea x. So I sit down to write. I start building up a picture as a backdrop to x. Sometimes I begin with x and sometimes I end with it. It is either the theme which I am developing or the goal towards which I want to lead the reader. Ideally, readers will feel they are discovering x all by themselves. As I am writing, things start to develop in unexpected ways. A certain emphasis emerges which I hadn't anticipated. Certain things turn out to be dull when put to paper, so I find myself gravitating away from those things and towards other things, more solid and interesting.

Then when I have finished a draft I go back and edit it. I find the weak generic verbs and replace them with stronger ones. I delete most of the adjectives (adjectives being a particular weakness of mine). I look for places where I have used two nouns or two verbs instead of one (since nothing enfeebles a sentence more than indecision over nouns and verbs). I delete digressions, anything that might distract from the effect that I am trying to achieve.

Last of all – here is the odd thing – just when I think it is finished, I discover a glaring weakness that I had not noticed before. It is x. There it is, standing there like a bit of old scaffolding, once necessary but now quite useless. It draws attention to itself. It obscures the view. It does not belong here anymore. Here comes the hardest part. Here comes the decision that will determine whether the writing is any good or whether it is another mediocrity. Often for sentimental reasons I cannot bear to get rid of x. This is a spiritual failing and it produces failed writing. Sentimentalism can be useful at the start of the writing process, but ruthlessness is necessary at the end. It takes courage to delete poor x, beloved x. But I have to do it. I have to expunge it, every last trace of it, not only killing it but burying it too. Nobody but me should know that x ever existed. Only then is my job done.

This, as I understand it, is the writing process: inspiration plus asceticism. An inspired idea is not worth the paper it's written on unless it is subjected to a merciless asceticism.

Friday 13 December 2013

Forty things I don't like about Christianity

by Kim Fabricius (a sequel to Ben's forty things)

  1. Theism
  2. Chicago – famous for its wind and a Statement. But I repeat myself.
  3. ID (e.g., Marmite, the designated hitter, Michele Bachmann, The X Factor)
  4. Predestination – Double-or-Nothing (Calvin’s Wager)
  5. Penileal substitution
  6. Cumulonimbus eschatology
  7. Crusades, especially those without fatalities
  8. A “spiritual” resurrection (cf. Flannery O’Connor on the eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”)
  9. The exception to “neither bond nor free” (Galatians 3:28): chattel slavery
  10. (Pace Nietzsche) Pig theology (aka complementarianism)
  11. Supercessionism (Scylla) and CUFI (Charybdis)
  12. God hates fags – or rather God loves fags but hates fags who love fags
  13. God loves flags (well, Old Glory – the flag, not the God)
  14. The Health and Wealth Stealth Gospel
  15. The undeserving poor (fuck ’em)
  16. Just-wanna prayers, the Sinner’s Prayer, prayer breakfasts, prayer chains
  17. “Christian” used as an adjective (as in Christian music, counselling, dating, etc.)
  18. Mission statements, purpose-driven drivel, and other managerial bullshit
  19. Church billboards with corny or – even worse – “inspirational” messages
  20. Fish symbols on cars (all “Christian merchandise”, for that matter)
  21. Confession before absolution
  22. WowerPoint in worship
  23. Fenced Tables
  24. Communion grape juice, chalicules, wafers, a thousand pieces of bread for a congregation of twenty (cf. “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)”)
  25. Family values (in distinction from Modern Family values)
  26. Whinging about “persecution” in the US and UK (“The Empire Strikes Back”)
  27. The Alpha Course (spag bol evangelism)
  28. God TV (unless it’s the only comedy on at the time)
  29. Tradition fundamentalism – “the dead faith of the living” (Jaroslav Pelikan)
  30. Pro-Life support for the death penalty
  31. Sports chaplains
  32. Purity (cf. Mark Twain: “To the pure, all things are impure”)
  33. Papal bull
  34. Protestant bulls (see #35)
  35. Mars Hell
  36. (Contra Ben’s #36) Kim Fabricius
  37. Worldviews
  38. Christian Realism (“That’s all very well, but what about Hitler?”)
  39. Theidiocies
  40. The logos asarkos (aka “The Myth of God Disincarnate”)

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Forty things I like about Christianity

  1. Very old books
  2. The calendar
  3. Getting buried when I die instead of burned or mutilated or set adrift or abandoned or eaten by birds
  4. Luke chapter 1
  5. The abolition of slavery
  6. Always believing (and occasionally even feeling) that I am forgiven and ultimately ok
  7. Going to church
  8. Staying home from church
  9. Christmas carols
  10. Europe
  11. C. S. Lewis
  12. Believing that my dog was created by God and hoping that he will go to heaven too
  13. Clerical vestments
  14. Novels
  15. Evensong, and the ability to see morning and evening as holy
  16. Cappadocian beards (like the one growing on Oliver Crisp)
  17. Russian icons
  18. Very old churches with old bones lovingly planted underneath
  19. Babette's Feast
  20. Gargoyles
  21. America
  22. The love of names, and the belief that names are holy
  23. The sign of the cross
  24. All the women's names, hundreds of them, derived from the Virgin Mary (Mara, Marie, Mariella, Marietta, Marilyn, Marita, Maryanne, Maura, Maurine, May, Mayra, Minnie, Moira, Morag, Muriel…)
  25. Civil law
  26. Italian cooking
  27. Having a lot of other people (billions of them) who will always think of me, no matter what, as a brother
  28. Hospitals
  29. The resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come
  30. Codex Sanaiticus
  31. Being able to read Milton and T. S. Eliot and understand what they are talking about
  32. Old people
  33. People who speak in tongues
  34. The nomina sacra (see #22)
  35. Holy communion (even when I don't deserve it)
  36. Kim Fabricius
  37. People who argue about very old books (see #1)
  38. The habit of seeing normal things, bread and wine and water, as the best and holiest things
  39. Learning how to pray
  40. The meaning of words like grace and love and steadfast love and lovingkindness and mercy and the multitude of thy tender mercies.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Postcards from the human race: Parramatta

You can find human beings anywhere, but you will never find a more plentiful variety than on a weekday afternoon in the Church Street Mall in Parramatta, New South Wales.

Here you will see women more beautiful and women more frightening and appalling than anywhere else in the world. You will see women with withered faces and hungry alert eyes and limbs as thin as sticks, combing the pavement for cigarette butts. You will see the Lebanese woman in tight jeans and a peach silk blouse and peach silk headscarf, so lovely you could cry, and the tall black African woman as glorious as a queen with her gorgeous dignity and her gorgeous red and orange clothes and the baby strapped to her waist and the red umbrella that she holds for shade above the baby, and you will see women, former convicts, with tight faces and muscly tattooed arms, and the hunchbacked woman who shuffles past clutching many shopping bags and a little boy, and the woman with the bicycle helmet and the bicycle and the little dog.

You will see disfiguring ailments, faces twisted out of all proportion, bodies barely functioning, legs hardly able to hobble from one end of the mall to the other and back again. You will see young men's bodies covered with expensive colour tattoos and older men's bodies covered with artless prison tattoos, and men of no determinate age with tattoos stretching menacingly up one side of the neck. You will see the most extensive catalogue of facial hair available anywhere in the world: the thin man whose body is bald all over except for the three-foot braided goatee; the round man with the clean-shaven face and the huge neck beard like Robert Browning; the little man with the thick grey moustache that continues in a straight line from the top lip to the tops of his ears and then encircles the back of his bald head, a perfect round belt of hair. If you stare too long, these beards will return one night in your dreams and leave you frightened to go back to sleep again.

You will see the kind fat grocer perched on a wooden stool beside tables laden with ripe fruit. He will call to you as you pass by, "Bananas, two for three dollars. Tomatoes, fresh tomatoes. Mangos, three for five dollars. All fruit grown by wogs. Give the wog a chance, ladies and gentlemen, give him a chance!" You will stop and laugh because others have stopped to laugh too and to buy fruit from the kind fat grocer and his smiling skinny sons.

You will see the tightly knit community of the homeless, the high, and the unhinged congregating around the park benches in front of the cathedral. You will see the heroin dealers with their new sports clothes and their new white shoes and their thick new jewellery, and the edgy characters milling about to score heroin, and the drawn faces hollowed out by heroin, and you will see their girlfriends, not all of whom are prostitutes, scurrying away on errands with plastic shopping bags.

You will see a man resting on his haunches with his head in his hands on the pavement beside the lamp post. Very suddenly he lunges to his feet and, with the precision of a professional boxer, delivers a short sharp blow to the unsuspecting lamp post. Then he goes over beside the green rubbish bin and pulls down his pants and pulls them up again and goes back to the lamp post and squats on his haunches with his head in his hands. He is very sad and agitated because the heroin dealers have not come back yet. Poor fellow, you would give him heroin yourself if you could, just to ease his troubled mind.

You will see a man and a woman, both dressed in matching sports pants with the white stripe down the side, screaming at each other. He strikes her. But it's ok, the police are here, they are never far away, they are always visible in the background in their fluorescent yellow vests. They come over and the woman, who loves her man (where would she be without him?), turns on the police. The police stay until she has calmed down and then they argue some more and a few others wander over and argue too, and then the police have gone because there are other things to attend to, and there are more important things transpiring in the Church Street Mall than a woman screaming at the man she loves and being hit by him.

You will see the man with dreadlocks and a face that looks like Jesus crouching in his dirty blankets on the concrete step, drinking coffee between spasms of maniacal laughter. You will see the big Lebanese man whose brain is addled and who, though he can no longer walk straight or talk in sentences, has never lost his native swagger. And you will see his wife or lover who keeps chasing him away but sometimes touches him fondly when he returns because she cares for him and has always felt safe and good with a man who swaggers like that. Nowhere else in the world will you ever see men with more swagger, or women more ruthlessly loyal to their swaggering men.

You will see lawyers and accountants and local councillors in pin-striped shirts and grey suits, and you will see the accountant in the cheap suit with bits of grass and leaves stuck in his hair, looking as if he could use another drink, and you will see men in borrowed suits on their way to court, one of them a huge brick wall of a man in a black suit with his luxuriant long hair curled neatly and tied neatly back and dyed hot pink, because it's always good to look your best in court.

You will see a woman in old pyjamas, very poor, reclining under the tree and digging deep into her pocket for loose change when another woman, older, even poorer, comes up to her and receives from her a whole handful of gold and silver coins, all that she had, as unthinkingly generous as the woman with the two coins in the Gospel. 

Everything that Dostoevsky knew, this pavement knows too and would tell you if it could speak. Everything Shakespeare wrote about, the gigantic comedy and tragedy of the human race, the ruined kings, the murderous villains, the lovers driven mad with love or jealousy, the fools and tricksters and the lovely fairies too, it is all here, all passing by in front of you if you will only stop and watch for twenty minutes. In a theatre a few blocks from here I once saw a production of Hamlet and it all seemed right, it seemed believable to see such portentous events unfolding here in Parramatta. Swaggering Hamlet and swaggering Claudius and heartless Gertrude and mad Ophelia and dead Ophelia and the toothless whimsical gravedigger, it all had a certain obviousness about it, as if they all were natives of this place, as if the day-to-day affairs of the Church Street Mall had climbed on to the stage.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Near and distant conferences and events

  • Tomorrow night at Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney, I'll be giving a lecture on "George Herbert's God" following a service to mark the feast of Nicholas Ferrar
  • Next week in Melbourne there'll be a colloquium with Sarah Coakley. I'll be giving a paper there on "Exegetical mysticism: scripture and the spiritual senses" (mainly on Origen).
  • There's a call for papers for a theology panel at next year's Religion in California conference at Berkeley, with a focus on the California body
  • Princeton has a conference coming up on the doctrine of creation in patristic tradition
  • I'll be involved in next year's online Ecclesia and Ethics conference; they have a call for papers on the theme "Gospel Community and Virtual Existence"
  • It looks like a good lineup for the second Los Angeles Theology Conference on the doctrine of the Trinity. Plus you get to be in California.
  • Wheaton's theology conference next year is on the Spirit of God and renewal
  • And some church events coming up in Australia: a big youth festival, Yurora NCYC, is coming soon to Sydney (I'll be giving some talks there too); and the Uniting Church has a women's conference coming up next year with Nadia Bolz-Weber of the aptly named House for All Sinners and Saints in Colorado.
If you'd like me to add a link to any other upcoming events, just leave the details in a comment.

Sunday 1 December 2013

The man who told stories

There was once a man who lived at the bottom of a hole, and every day he was forced to tell stories. He lived in the hole because of the monkeys who, thirty years before, had plundered his village and taken him captive and dragged him to their city and thrown him into a hole in the ground. Each night, just after sundown, the monkeys would gather around the hole for their bedtime story. If the man was too slow to begin the story the monkeys would kick stones and dirt into the hole until their prisoner stammered out his frightened "Once upon a time." When the story was finished, the monkeys would throw down some bananas and some bottled water, and the man would eat and drink greedily, for this was his only meal each day, and he lived in a perpetual state of gnawing hunger.

As he told his stories, the man had to proceed with the greatest caution and delicacy, not only because he would be refused food if the story was not good enough, but also because an unsatisfying story could make the monkeys react in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

There were times in the middle of a story when the monkeys would start screeching and hissing and scratching each another's eyes and throwing rocks into the hole, and the man would have to do some very quick thinking to alter the plot or introduce a new character or bring the villain to a grisly end. When a story ended happily the monkeys would grow very hushed and grateful and contented. When a story ended sadly but beautifully, the monkeys would shake their heads in silent wonderment and creep quietly back to their houses for the night, and the man would get to eat his bananas in peace and quiet. Sometimes when he was narrating a story of particular sadness and beauty, from where he sat at the bottom of the hole he would hear the monkeys crying and blowing their noses.

Once, when a story had ended badly – a character they loved had died – the monkeys rioted and began tearing their clothes and breaking glass and setting their houses on fire. Their entire civilisation might have been threatened had not the man called the monkeys back and told them a sequel in which their beloved character – a purple starfish named Rick who was a private detective with a hardened outlook on life, a history of alcoholism, and a weakness for the wrong kinds of women – turned out to be not dead after all but only unconscious, and he escaped and was saved and the villains were apprehended and everything ended well. Rick the starfish detective was to appear in over nine hundred other stories, until the man in the bottom of the hole could not bear it anymore; even thinking of Rick made him nauseous. So he had created a new character named Sam. Sam was very different from Rick. He was a clam, not a starfish, and he solved murder cases using nothing but lucid reasoning and his own uncanny powers of observation. Sam the clam drank bourbon whisky and had a gritty outlook on life and most of his stories involved his seduction by a mysterious femme fatale. For six or seven years the man in the hole told stories about Sam and the monkeys were very pleased and after a while they forgot all about Rick the starfish, which was a great relief to the man in the hole.

But after thirty years like this, there came a day when the man found he could tell no more stories. No matter how much the monkeys screamed and bared their teeth at him, he just could not get the words out. Perhaps it was the inadequate living conditions that had given him writer's block; perhaps it was the bland diet. Whatever the explanation, one wintry night when the moon was high the man collapsed on to his knees and explained to his captors that he could not think of a story. "I'm sorry," he told them helplessly. "Tonight there will be no story." As he spoke the fateful words, the moon went behind a cloud and the sky went black and the hole grew darker and colder than ever. The man covered his ears as the monkeys shrieked at him. He covered his face with his hands as the monkeys kicked dirt and stones and sticks into the hole.

Then the monkeys began to tear at one another with their fingernails, scratching and biting one another, consumed by a blind animal rage. For a moment they forgot all about their prisoner in the hole. And a moment was all it took. For at that moment the man, wearied by the monkeys' violent and uncharitable ways, stood up straight and peered out of the hole. The hole was about as deep as his shoulders, and with only a little difficulty he found that he could push his elbows out of the hole and heave himself up and climb out. He dusted himself off. He had never thought to climb out before, because like most storytellers he was not a practical person but a daydreamer who, for thirty years, had spent all his time sitting on the ground planning his next story. But it felt good now to be standing in the open air. He took a deep breath and walked off down the street. By now the monkeys were rioting. The man stopped for a second to watch a group of them set a police car on fire. They were so preoccupied with their angry nihilism that they didn't even noticed as their prisoner left the city and walked off into the woods.

The man walked half the night through the woods until he came to the edge of a great lake. He was given passage across the lake by a ferryman who smoked a pipe and whistled through his teeth and had the name Mavis tattooed across his arm. On the other side, the man went down a little trail and found the road, just as he'd remembered it, and from there he managed to hitch a ride back to the village where he had lived all those years ago, before he had ever been taken captive by the wicked monkeys.

The sun was coming up as he walked into the village. Everywhere he looked he saw people and places that he remembered. But everyone looked at him strangely, no one recognised him, for in the time he had been gone he had grown old, his face had grown wrinkled with care, his eyes were pale, his beard white as snow. Taking him for one of the hobos who used to wander from town to town in those days, a kindhearted woman ushered him into her house and sat him down by the fire. All the children gathered round and stared at him expectantly.

"Are you hungry?" said the woman. "You can join us for porridge if you like." The children watched to see what he would say.

The man, who had eaten nothing but bananas for thirty years, said with genuine feeling, "Porridge would be wonderful." And he did his best to smile at the watching children, though they retreated in fear when he bared his yellow teeth at them.

While the woman was ladling steaming porridge into wooden bowls she gave the stranger a sideways look and clucked sympathetically and said, "Poor soul. You look as if you've got a story to tell."

"No," the man pleaded. "I don't." And he covered his face with his hands and wept.


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